Captain Schroeder ordered his crew to treat the Jews heading to Cuba with dignity. Fred said that the trip to Cuba was remarkable. The passengers had left their friends, their families and their troubles behind them. One minute the Jews were living difficult lives, the next minute they were eating well and dancing aboard a luxury ship.
Life looked promising for the Reifs. Or did it?
On May 23rd, Captain Gustav received a cable stating that the St. Louis might not be able to land in Cuba because of Decree 937. In early 1939, Cuba passed Decree 55 which made a distinction between a refugee and a tourist. The Decree stated that a tourist was welcome in Cuba and did not need a Visa, but a refugee needed a visa and had to pay a $500 bond per refugee to guarantee that each would not become a ward of Cuba.
The director of immigration in Cuba, Manuel Benitez sold the Jews landing certificates as tourists and he amassed a small fortune doing so. The President of Cuba, Frederico Laredo Bru, and his cabinet did not like the fact that Benitez was making a lot of money and that he was not sharing the wealth. In addition, the economy in Cuba was stagnate.
Jews have often been blamed for troubled economies and this time was no different. Many worried that the refugees were taking jobs away from Cubans. 8 days prior to the departure of the St. Louis, Decree 937 was passed which closed the loophole created by Decree 55.
Overnight, the Reif’s went from being viewed tourists to being viewed as refugees.
On May 27, 1939 the Reifs were told to get up early and be ready to disembark. They were ecstatic as they packed their bags and prepared for life in Cuba.
Once again, time tick away for Fred. Only 28 passengers were allowed to disembark. Cuban police and immigration officials boarded the St. Louis. The immigration officials left the ship; the police remained aboard. Days passed and the refugees were not allowed to leave the St. Louis. The Reif’s friend from Austria rented a small boat and waved as he passed near the St. Louis.
What was going on?
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint) was called upon for its assistance. It agreed to send someone to negotiate but it would take four days for him or her to arrive. The Joint sent American Lawrence Berenson to Cuba and on June 1, 1939, President Bru agreed to negotiate with him on the condition that the St. Louis leave Cuban waters.
Captain Schroder was told the Cuban Navy would force the ship to leave if it did not leave on its own accord. The refugees aboard the St. Louis spent the next several days cruising the waters hoping and praying that they would return to Cuba. They had enough food and water to last about two weeks.
Fred saw the lights of Miami. Would the United States let them in? The refugees sent a desperate plea to President Roosevelt. The request went unanswered.
The Cuban government wanted $500 per refugee, about $500,000. Berenson believed he could negotiate with the Cuban officials and hoped the Joint could get away with only paying $125,000. On June 6, 1939, Bru said enough was enough. Somehow, Berenson did not realize that Bru set that date as the deadline for negotiations. The next day the Joint agreed to Bru’s demand – but it was too late.
The St. Louis turned and headed towards Germany.
The mood on the ship was dismal. One man slit his wrists. The great food was gone. The Reifs had abandoned their apartment. What would happen to them next? Would they be taken to concentration camps?
Captain Schroeder was aware of the fate of refugees if they went back to Germany and refused to return to Germany. He even went so far as to come up with a plan B – If worse came to worst, he would crash the ship near the English coast thus forcing them to take action.
The Joint and several other agencies, negotiated with several countries, each of whom agreed to take a portion of the refugees:
Holland – 181
France – 224
Great Britain – 228
Belgium – 214
On March 11, 1993 Yad Vashem recognized Captain Schroeder as Righteous Among the Nations.
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